It’s the love/hate relationship you really love to hate: closers! With a good month and a half left until Opening Day, now is as good a time as any to start breaking down some bullpen arms ahead of your draft. This series will detail every division across the league, offering you the big names you’ll want to own, as well as the sleepers you need to keep an eye on, and of course some key stats to better prepare you for the big day. Next up, we take a look at the NL Central.
|Team||Closer||Next in Line||Plan C|
|Chicago Cubs||Brandon Morrow||Pedro Strop||Justin Grimm|
|Cincinnati Reds||Raisel Iglesias||Michael Lorenzen||David Hernandez|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Corey Knebel||Josh Hader||Jacob Barnes|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Felipe Rivero||George Kontos||Daniel Hudson|
|St. Louis Cardinals||Luke Gregerson||Bud Norris||Dominic Leone|
**Green=elite bullpen. Blue=stable bullpen. Red=unstable bullpen.
Other Bullpen Breakdowns:
- 28 wins (12th most in Majors)
- 23 losses (12th fewest in Majors)
- 38 saves (16th in Majors)
- 3.80 ERA (5th lowest in Majors)
Must Own: Brandon Morrow
The lasting image we have of the Cubs’ bullpen is Enrique Hernandez’s two-run home run off Mike Montgomery to send the Dodgers to the World Series. Fittingly, the lasting image we have of Brandon Morrow is much the same — the Dodgers’ righty allowed four earned runs on six pitches during Game 6 of the World Series against the Astros, so I guess you could say these two are simply made for each other.
With the departure of Wade Davis, the Cubs find themselves in a jam. Looking around, there’s not a single reliable arm, and with just 828 Major League innings to his name, I’m not sure Morrow qualifies as trustworthy, either. There is a history of shoulder problems here, but would you believe Morrow added three MPH to his fastball last season?
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That kind of velocity uptick is impressive, and part of the reason why the Cubs are paying him closer-type money. That very pitch was particularly effective against lefties last season, generating a career-high 56% swing rate. The Cubs’ pitching unit as a whole finished with a 3.64 ERA against lefty batters last season, so it’s not hard to understand why Theo Epstein opened his wallet so early in December.
Of course, if you’re looking to draft Morrow, there are plenty of questions that are without answers. Can he be relied upon to pitch on back-to-back days? And can he transition from the comfortable middle-relief role he’s known for most of his 11-year career? As you know, Joe Maddon has a tendency to overwork closers in big games. This could be a great move for the Cubs, or it could be a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Diamond in the Rough: Pedro Strop
We touched on the Cubs’ unreliable arms earlier, but Pedro Strop sorta, coulda, maybe counts as one. With Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm struggling with walks, Strop is perhaps the only solid Plan B option if Morrow fails to come through. Strop had quite an encouraging postseason run, throwing 5.1 innings of one-hit, one-run ball against the Nationals and Dodgers. Chicago does have a couple of good pitching prospects to fall back on in Rob Zastryzny and Dillon Maples if all else fails, which is handy considering Carl Edwards Jr. has been trouble in high-leverage situations. Strop, on the other hand, finished with a 2.83 ERA and a .206 AVG against last year. Since the Cubs have cycled through three closers in the last three seasons, it’s likely Maddon will turn to the most trustworthy of the three remaining bullpen arms from 2016’s squad.
- 24 wins (8th fewest in Majors)
- 21 losses (9th fewest in Majors)
- 33 saves (4th fewest in Majors)
- 4.65 ERA (4th highest in Majors)
Must Own: Raisel Iglesias
Three things to know about the Reds’ pen: injuries, rookies, mistakes. Last season was a comedy of errors for a team that has thrown the most innings of any bullpen across the last two seasons (1,193). Cincinnati shuffled through 16 different starting pitchers last season, forcing the bullpen to eat a lot of extra innings that they simply couldn’t handle.
Let’s jog your memory a little. Did you know Raisel Iglesias held a 1.69 ERA through the first half of the season? His 32.1% strikeout rate also earned him the ninth spot on Roster Resource’s first-half power rankings. He faded down the stretch, sporting a 5.59 ERA in September, but he still finished the season with a career-low 2.49 ERA. Iglesias’ current ADP has him going as the 10th closer off the board.
Diamond in the Rough: David Hernandez
The Reds have a problem, but it’s a good one to have. Michael Lorenzen could potentially resume duties in the setup role, making him another name to watch, or they could do something really whacky, like move Brandon Finnegan to the bullpen. A lot depends on the health of Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafini, of course, but the offseason acquisition of David Hernandez opens up another world of possibilities in real life and for fantasy owners.
At 32 years of age, Hernandez is getting on a bit, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less effective. Adding a 91 MPH cutter to his repertoire helped tally 52 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched for the Diamondbacks/Angels last season, which also gives the Reds options if they feel like moving Lorenzen back into the starting rotation. Hernandez is certainly capable of holding his own in middle relief, and he does hold some strikeout potential.
- 27 wins (14th in Majors)
- 36 losses (Most in Majors)
- 54 saves (Most in Majors)
- 3.83 ERA (8th lowest in Majors)
Must Own: Corey Knebel
A year ago, he was a secret sleeper pick. Now he’s a top-tier closer being drafted as the fourth closer off the board. We should give a pat on the back to Neftali Feliz; he’s the real MVP here. When it all fell apart mid-May, the Brewers opened the door for Knebel to assume the closing duties, and boy has it been fun. Originally drafted as Milwaukee’s future closer in 2013, Knebel finished with a better ERA (1.78) and more saves (39) than money-man Wade Davis last season. Most impressive was last season’s 14.9 K/9, which helps vault him into the top-five closer conversation.
The only nitpick I can really find here is walks. There’s obviously something in the water in Milwaukee, because plenty of their bullpen arms struggle with free passes. However, Knebel’s 4.74 BB/9 needs some attention if he wants to hang with guys like Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel in the rankings. Okay, I lied, there actually is another area of concern: the six blown save opportunities last year. They probably don’t seem like much now, but for a Brewers team on the edge of the postseason, and for owners vying for playoffs of their own, it’s hard to forget Knebel allowing two-earned runs on two hits during the final game of the regular season.
What’s also hard to forget is Milwaukee’s splurge this offseason. The Brewers ranked 21st in runs scored last season, but the addition of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich should make life a little easier for the 26-year-old righty.
Diamond in the Rough: Josh Hader
Not sure about you, but I plan to milk this cow for as long as I can. For a lefty, Hader’s 2017 season was nothing short of great. Finishing with a 2.08 ERA and a 36.2% strikeout rate during his first year in the Majors, it’s no wonder Milwaukee a seriously considering moving him into the starting rotation. For the time being, though, Hader will start 2018 in the bullpen, which is good news if you’re a) in need of strikeouts b) in need of holds, and c) in need of a relief pitcher that can throw multiple innings. Just like Knebel, Hader does need to work on lowering his walks, but that should come with more reliance and better command on his change-up. Right now/ the Brewers’ 7/8th inning duties will likely be split between Hader and Jacob Barnes, but with Barnes still looking a little unreliable in high-leverage situations, take full advantage of Hader while he’s still in the pen.
- 27 wins (16th in Majors)
- 28 losses (8th most in Majors)
- 36 saves (11th fewest in Majors)
- 3.84 ERA (9th lowest in Majors)
Must Own: Felipe Rivero
Rivero was electric last season, finishing with the seventh-best ERA (1.67) as well as a 2.47 FIP — two spots higher than Corey Knebel and Aroldis Chapman. Playing for the Pirates has its disadvantages, and that’s evident in the fact Rivero had five fewer saves than Hector Neris (21), but with an ADP of 95.71, you’re looking at a mid-round guy that spells potential steal.
The thing I love the most about Rivero is his package (no, it’s not what it sounds like). His fastball topped a career-high 1o2.5 MPH, according to Fangraphs, while he also quietly added 2 MPH onto his slider in the process. Since there’s really nothing to flaw mechanically, perhaps the Pirates’ middle relief is Rivero’s biggest kryptonite going forward. The two-headed attack of Juan Nicasio followed by Rivero was a dream, but those days are over. Way back in 2015, this bullpen once held the best ERA in baseball, but now they’re banking on one elite closer and a bunch of veterans in front of him. That very reason is why I’ve colored the Pirates bullpen as just a “stable” situation. But nonetheless, inconsistencies, expect a lot of em’ this year.
Diamond in the Rough: George Kontos
So the Pirates’ middle-relief won’t be sound, so what? Kontos was still particularly effective in late innings last year, finishing with a career-high 9.50 K/9 as well as 40 strikeouts on his go-to cutter. Sporting a career 1.14 WHIP, Kontos figures to be Pittsburgh’s eighth-inning guy this season, which makes sense considering Daniel Hudson’s struggles from month to month last year. At age 31, his velocity might dip a little, but Kontos’ resume from his Giants glory days certainly holds up. We can’t expect a 2.33 ERA like the one we saw in 2015, especially since he allowed six home runs on the road last season. But still, unless the Pirates decide to convert Tyler Glasnow to the bullpen sometime tomorrow, Kontos is a reliable option capable of strikeouts and holds.
St. Louis Cardinals
- 22 wins (5th fewest in Majors)
- 29 losses (6th most in Majors)
- 43 saves (11th most in Majors)
- 3.81 ERA (6th lowest in Majors)
Must Own: Luke Gregerson
The Cardinals were expected to pay big bucks for a closer this offseason, but nope. Instead, they re-signed veteran Luke Gregerson to a two-year deal, much to the dismay of the St. Louis faithful.
A smart baseball mind will tell you the Cardinals did well to hold on to their money and their prospects, but one has to wonder just how Gregerson can answer the biggest question mark on the entire roster: who’s the future closer? It’s scary to think at, age 33, Gregerson is one of the few arms with experience in St. Louis’ bullpen, and although he earned 46 saves with the Astros between 2015-16, there’s still a lot of grey areas I’m not so crazy about.
Gregerson’s struggles with the long ball have been astronomical, allowing 13 homers in 61 innings pitched last season. You don’t have to look far to find the culprit, either: A severe drop in sinker and slider velocity helped push Gregerson’s ground ball rate to just 50% last season, the lowest it’s been since 2013. The Cardinals have already said Gregerson is their guy ahead of Opening Day, but with close to a 10% increase in overall contact rate from 2016-2017, he’s likely to cause plenty of headaches this season.
If Gregerson can’t get the job done, Dominic Leone and the newly signed Bud Norris could also be late-inning options. And don’t forget about Alex Reyes. He may not return until May as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but indications are that the Cardinals could use him in the bullpen to keep his innings down. If that happens, the 23-year-old has all the makings of being a dominant, shutdown reliever.
Diamond in the Rough: Tyler Lyons
Tyler Lyons is still a name to watch here. Fortunately, the signing of starter Miles Mikolas should guarantee Lyons a permanent spot in the bullpen, and since Gregerson is in need of some backup at middle relief, this is the Cardinals’ best option. Earning three saves across 54 innings pitched last year, the majority of Lyons’ 68 strikeout success came from a simple decision to trust his slider. He threw it 20.71% more last year than he did in 2016, resulting in a crazy .157 AVG against. Lyons has reportedly been engaging in more lower-body workouts this offseason, which will hopefully help him as a potential multi-inning reliever.